by Zane Dundon
One of the most notable differences between socialists and liberals in the United States is that socialists emphasize the extreme sense of urgency they feel about the problems facing people today, while liberals generally appear content advocating gradual changes. The reason for this divide is evident when one examines the rhetoric of the liberal elite: simply put, they don’t think things are that bad. They advocate for a few tweaks here and there, but scoff at the notion of radical systemic change.
Because they ignore the gravity of the situation, they are completely unequipped to propose the necessary solutions to America’s (not to mention the world’s) problems. This complacency is damaging to the struggle for progressive change for two reasons: it prevents liberals from supporting truly transformative policy changes, and it gives credibility to conservative claims that liberals and the Democratic Party do not understand people’s anger with the current situation.
When the Democratic Party was confronted with Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, they responded by selling hats with the almost unbelievably tone deaf slogan, “America is Already Great.” The message here was absolutely clear: “Trump is wrong. Everything is fine.”
Similarly, though President Obama’s speech at this year’s Democratic National Convention (DNC) contained some admirable statements, many aspects of it were emblematic of the problematic rhetoric employed by the liberal political class, which downplays the scale of the current crisis while overstating improvements. At the beginning of his speech, Obama listed off the accomplishments that his administration has made and claimed that “By so many measures, our country is stronger and more prosperous than it was when we started.” Later in the speech, Obama stated, “America is already great” and referenced (approvingly) Ronald Reagan’s claim that America represents “a shining city on a hill.” This language very clearly conveys the message that, although things are not quite perfect, Americans are doing well and we should not forget to appreciate our “greatness.”
Along with statements from politicians, the Democratic Party’s rhetoric is supplemented by liberal media figures who use their platforms to claim that radical change is not necessary because things are going so well for America already. Nowhere was this position more obvious than in Jonathan Chait’s article for New York Magazine headlined, “Reminder: Liberalism is Working, and Marxism Has Always Failed.” The article, essentially a scolding of leftists for imagining political possibilities to the left of liberal technocracy, states that “The case for democratic, pluralistic, incremental, market-friendly governance rooted in empiricism – i.e., liberalism – has never been stronger than now. What an odd time to abandon a successful program for an ideology that has failed everywhere it has been tried.”
The most notable aspect of the article is how earnestly Chait seems to believe that “liberalism is working” and that America’s problems are fewer and fewer every day. This blindness to the suffering of millions of people struck a chord with many socialists on Twitter who started the sarcastic hashtag, #liberalismisworking, to accompany stories of Americans suffering despite the liberal reforms that Chait holds in such high regard. What Chait’s article, Obama’s speech, and the Democratic Party’s hats have in common is their acceptance of the status quo as mostly acceptable and their belief that small incremental changes are all that is necessary to fix America’s problems. The problem with this view is that most Americans are not doing “okay.” Not even close.
In 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau discovered that 14.8% of Americans live in poverty or, in other words, 46.7 million Americans. The poverty rate for children in the United States was even higher, at 21.1%. And the numbers were even more shocking when broken down by race. The poverty rate for Black Americans was 26.2% and 23.6% for Hispanics. These numbers reflect the “official” poverty measure of the U.S. Census Bureau, which has been criticized for its outdated methodology. Although the numbers are astoundingly high, critics say that the Census Bureau’s poverty measure is a low estimate and that more accurate measures show the U.S. as having an even higher rate of poverty.
Also in 2014, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that nearly 565,000 Americans were homeless and roughly 1.49 million Americans used a homeless shelter in 2014. The count of homeless Americans is almost certainly an underestimate since the process used to get it involves officials going out one night and literally counting by hand the number of people living on the street. However, even this underestimate is astounding and even more so when one considers that a quarter of the 565,000 homeless people were children. There are countless other examples of the suffering of Americans today and these statistics only scratch the surface. Considering these numbers, though, it is obscene that the Democratic Party and liberal politicians and journalists continue to speak and operate as if America is doing just fine. It certainly doesn’t seem that way to the hundreds of thousands of Americans without a place to call home or the millions of Americans living in poverty.
In response to accusations that they don’t talk enough about the suffering of millions of Americans, a liberal might respond that they understand and care about these problems, but still think it’s important to celebrate achievements. But even ignoring the fact that many of these celebrated achievements are not nearly as impressive as they are said to be (such as the “low” official unemployment rate which is about half of what the real unemployment rate is), the rhetoric of incremental progress is problematic for a number of reasons.
Focusing on tiny improvements in the living conditions of a few people, rather than the desperate conditions of so many others, produces complacency about the pace of change. Of course any improvements are good and shouldn’t be ignored. But just because one particular metric of American suffering is slightly better than it was a few decades ago, this does not mean that things are going well. Let’s be clear: 46 million people living in poverty in the richest country in the history of the world is an outrage and we should treat it as a national crisis. The fact that we don’t speaks volumes about our politics.
The central problem is that America contains massive amounts of devastation and suffering because of our policy choices. We shouldn’t primarily compare our situation with how things used to be. We should compare it to how things should be, and more importantly, how they could be. Millions of Americans don’t live in poverty by accident. Our capitalist political economy produced this suffering and, therefore, it’s in our power to reverse it. But the problems that Americans face are not small and can’t be solved by a few tweaks here and there. We need whole system change.
So until that happens, let’s stop being satisfied with tiny changes on top of the mass of suffering endured by millions of Americans. America is not “already great.” The only way it ever will be is if enough people demand that we re-order society to place people before profit and solidarity before exploitation.
Zane Dundon is a DSA member and student at Lewis & Clark College, where he is studying Political Science.